Higaonna Kanryō (quick overview)

Higaonna Kanryō (1853–1915), referred to as the “ancestor who rejuvenated Naha-te“, is one of the representative Okinawan masters of Karate of the Meiji era.

Personal history

Early life

Higaonna Kanryō was born on 1853-04-17 (Gregorian calendar) as the 4th son of firewood trader Higaonna Kanyō in Nishi village, Naha.  His Chinese-style name was Shin Zenki, his childhood name was Mōshi 真牛.

His father Kanyō transported firewood from Kerama in a small boat type called Yanbaru-sen and sold it in Naha as a business. At that time, the Higaonna family belonged to the class of commoners. According to a descendant of Kanryō, however, they were originally a samurai branch family of the Shin-clan, with father Kanyō being the 9th generation of this lineage.

As an additional information hitherto unpublished: On January 8, 1867 (moon calendar), Higaonna tied up his topknot, i.e. the male coming of age ceremony. His later wife was called Makatu. (Nagamine Shōshin: Handwritten Personal Notebook).

The Era of Practicing Naha-te

To support the family, Higaonna helped in the family business of selling firewood from around the age of 10 years. According to one hypothesis, in 1873, at the age of 20 (or 17 years old), he is said to have studied Karate under Aragaki Seishō (1840 – 1920) of Naha-te. This hypothesis was established by Nagamine Shōshin (Nagamine 1976: 96), but there is no source mentioned for it.

The reason why Arakaki would hand down Naha-te – a carefully protected art not given out of the house – to an outsider not belonging to the Kume Shizoku class remains unknown. In this connection, it is said that the Aragaki family were customers of the Higaonna family. Watching Higaonna entering and leaving the house to sell firewood, it is said that Arakaki felt the extraordinary qualities of Higaonna. So it happened that Higaonna studied Naha-te under Aragaki for about three years.

However, in a 1914 newspaper article about Arakaki Seishō, there is no mention that Higaonna was somehow related to him in terms of a teacher-student relationship (Shō Busei 1914).

Moreover, the Kata of the so-called Aragaki-school (Aragaki-ha, a name coined by Mabuni Kenwa in 1938 or so) were neither handed down in Gōjū-ryū nor in Tōon-ryū. In addition, there is no mention of Arakaki in the “Karate-do Gaisetsu” (1936) by Miyagi Chōjun. So it remains unknown whether the Arakaki-hypothesis is true or not.

There is also the theory that Higaonna practiced Okinawa-te since childhood, but that he – as an outsider – was declined access by an expert of Chinese Kenpō and could not train (hypothesis by Miyazato Ei’ichi, in Uechi 1977: 747).

There is also the hypothesis that, after studying under Arakaki, because Arakaki traveled to China as an interpreter, he left Higaonna into the custody of Kojō Taitei of Kojō-ryū, where he trained for a while (Fujiwara 1985: 178).

However, an anecdote contradictory to this hypothesis reports that Higaonna is said to have waged a heated debate with Kojō Taitei over Sanchin (the so-called Sanchin Trial).

The Era of Practicing Chinese Martial Arts

According to the hypothesis by Nagamine Shōshin, Higaonna crossed over to Qing-China in 1877 (Meiji 10), at around the age of 20 years. There are also hypotheses that say this was at 24 years of age (hypothesis by Eiichi Miyazato) etc. There are various hypotheses as regards the reason why Higaonna is supposed to have crossed over to China, such as that practice of Chinese Kenpo-hypothesis, the working away from home-hypothesis, or the hypothesis of acting as a messenger for Yoshimura Chōmei of the Yoshimura Udun on behalf of the Ryūkyū royalist movement etc.

For example, Kinjō Akio wrote that Higaonna crossed to China as a secret messenger of Yoshimura Chōmei. According to Kinjō (2006), in 1877, Higaonna carried a hidden petition written by Ryūkyūan royalists and addressed to the Qing authorities, asking for aid to rescue Ryūkyū from being “disposed” by the Japanese. But this was pure speculation on Kinjō’s side and no primary source has been presented.

In any case, immediately following his voyage, and although he locally sold firewood, Higaonna is said to also have sold medical drugs and eventually to have studied under Chinese martial arts expert Rūrūkō (also, Tūrūkō).

In addition, according to the talks of Asato Ankō, Higaonna Kanryō, referred to as “Nishi Higashionna-gwā”, was a Karate teacher at the Fishery School and at the Commercial School (Shōtō 1914, I). He was said to have been a disciple of Waishinzan, described as a Chinese military officer (bukan). However, it remains unclear from the text whether Higaonna traveled to China or whether he received instruction directly in Okinawa (Shōtō 1914, II).

At the beginning, due to the disability to speak the language, and also as a usual measure (old trick) in the martial art practice of that time, Higaonna was not able to receive a professional martial arts instruction. He is said to only practiced stepping and breathing for 4 or 5 hours, and besides only did chores for the teacher. However, it is said that Higaonna won the trust of Rūrūkō by saving his master’s family at the risk of losing his own life during a massive flood and that afterward he received full-fledged professional martial arts instruction from the master. Afterwards, as Higaonna became Rūrūkō’s assistant teacher (Shihan Dai), his skill was recognized.

Regarding the period of Higaonna’s stay in China, there are multiple hypotheses, but no conclusion. The 15-years hypothesis  (such as from Nagamine Shōshin and others), the 3-years hypothesis (such as from Miyagi Chōjun, Higa Yūchoku, Chibana Chōshin, and Higaonna Kanryō’s grandchild), Moreover, some researcher says that Higaonna actually stayed there for 1 year and 4 months, with the sailing time excluded from this (!) (hypothesis by Tokashiki Iken). Besides, there are also others, such as the 8-year-hypothesis, 10-year-hypothesis, 16-year-hypothesis, and the 30-year-hypothesis (Toguchi 1986: 103).

Entry on Higaonna Kanryo, from Okinawa Daihyakka Jiten 1983.

Entry on Higaonna Kanryo, from Okinawa Daihyakka Jiten 1983.

In addition, while there are various hypotheses of Higaonna’s travel, there is the contradicting fact that traveling to China was under severe official monitoring at that time and it was all but easy to become an “exile to Qing”. However, none of the various hypotheses drew a conclusion from this contradicting fact. Therefore, there are also various hypotheses as regards Higaonna Kanryō’s age at the time of his return from China, ranging from his 20s to his 40s.

Since his return home

After returning home from China, Higaonna is said to have opened a dōjō in Naha, but initially, he did not gather disciples. The first disciple that can be confirmed in the literature is Yoshimura Chōgi (1866-1945) of the Yoshimura Udun.


Yoshimura Chōgi (1866-1945) left his “Autobiographic Martial Arts Records” (Jiden Budōki, 1941. Joe Swift translated the whole text in one of his publications). Therein Yoshimura describes how he learned Karate from Higaonna Kanryō, starting in 1887 or 1888. According to Yoshimura, Higaonna lived near the beach in Naha at the time, in front of the Hongan-ji temple, where Higaonna ran business selling firewood (Note: Arume Kangaku, 72 years old at the time, confirmed that Higaonna transported firewood from the Kerama Islands by boat and sold it in Nishi village of Naha (Nagamine Shōshin: Handwritten Personal Notebook). The place was later turned into a residential area by land reclamation. It is situated around

  • Naha’s old coastline at today’s 1 Chome-16 Nishi, Naha-shi, Okinawa-ken 900-0036, Japan


  • the Shinkyō-ji temple at 2 Chome-5-21 Nishi, Naha-shi, Okinawa-ken 900-0036, Japan

There are some details described by Yoshimura, such as that he was taught Sanchin as the foundation, and also Pecchūrin (i.e. Sūpārinpē) by Higaonna.

However, no person is mentioned as a teacher of Higaonna, nor any travel to China whatsoever, nor anything of the nature that Yoshimura helped Higaonna travel to China and stay there, nor that Yoshimura wrote a letter of introduction for Higaonna for his stay in China or anything else.

Contact and traveling to Qing-China in those years would have been considered a political activity of the “Rūykyū Restoration Movement”. However, at the time of the publication of his autobiography, it would not have been a problem anymore to speak about his or Higaonna’s past: Yoshimura even repatriated his father’s bones in the early 1930s, his father having been a leader of the (anti-Japanese) “Rūykyū Restoration Movement”. Therefore, there would have been no reason for Yoshimura to hold back any such facts about Higaonna (for the above, see: Zuroku “Yoshimura Chōgi Ten”. Okinawa Kenritsu Hakubutsukan 1981).


After that, in 1902 (Meiji 35), Kyoda Jūhatsu and Miyagi Chōjun, who later became the leading disciples, started practicing with Higaonna. Other disciples of Higaonna include Mabuni Kenwa, Higa Seikō, and Tōyama Kanken.

Miyagi Chōjun (1888–1953) received direct transmission of skill from Higaonna from September 1902 (at the age of 15) until October 1915  (at the age of 28) (Nagamine Shōshin: Handwritten Personal Notebook).

Shiroma Kōki was also a personal disciple of Higaonna (Nagamine Shōshin: Handwritten Personal Notebook).

In 1915 (Taishō 4), Higaonna died from a worsening chronical bronchial asthma while his disciples watched over him.

The Issue of Transmission

In the past, the Kata of Gōjū-ryū – except for those created by Miyagi Chōjun – were thought to have all been acquired by Higaonna Kanryō in China and brought back to Okinawa. However, in recent years various questions have been raised.

  • The Investiture Celebration Program of “The Crown Ship of the Year of the Tiger”

In 1867, Shizoku class persons from Kume Village hosted a celebration to welcome the Chinese envoys who visited Ryūkyū for the investiture of King Shō Tai. The program describing the items of the celebration at that time was discovered after the war (Shimabukuro Zenpatsu Chōsakushu). Among the recorded items are found the performances of the Kata “Sūpārinpei”, “Shisōchin (original text is “Chishochin”), and “Seisan”. Therefore, this is proof that these Kata already existed in Okinawa before Higaonna passed away.

  • A name like Rūrūkō does not exist in China

The pronunciation of Rūrū (如如) is Mandarin Chinese, but people in Fujian, which Higaonna is said to have learned from, do not pronounce it like this. Ryūryū (量量) on the other hand points to Higaonna Kanryō himself. In the first place, it is impossible to find such names to refer to a male adult in China.

  • There is no source martial art in existence

After the recovery of diplomatic relations between Japan and China, research teams were dispatched dozens of times to China, but no specific school could be identified as the source of Gōjū-ryū.

  • No weapons art has been handed down together with it

Unlike in Okinawa Karate, in Chinese martial arts, it is common to jointly use weapons techniques. It is impossible to be promoted to an assistant teacher (Shihan Dai) without having practiced weapons techniques.

Because of the above doubts, and because of the lack of primary sources, the number of researchers who doubt that Higaonna Kanryō traveled to China in the first place increased in recent years. Furthermore, even if he crossed over to China, he is considered to have just practiced Chinese Kenpō rudimentary. And finally, most of his personal history that has been handed down lacks credibility.


  • Fujiwara Ryozō: Kindai Karate-dō Senkusha, Miki Jisaburo to ‘Kenpō Gaisetsu’. Contribution to: Tōkyō Daigaku Karate-bu Roku-jū Nenshi. Tōkyō Daigaku Karate-bu Roku-jū Nenshi Kinen-go Henshū Iinkai-hen, 1985.
  • Gekkan Karate-dō. Fukushōdō, September 2005 issue.
  • Iwai Tsukuo: Koden Ryūkyū Karate-jutsu. Airyūdō 1992.
  • Kinjō Akio: Karate Denshi Roku. Champ, Tokyō 2006.
  • Nagamine Shōshin: Handwritten Personal Notebook with interviews and data collections. Page 47: Entry for Higaonna Kanryō. Copy from the personal archive of Andreas Quast.
  • Nagamine Shōshin: Shijitsu to Kuden ni yoru Okinawa no Karate Sumō Meijin-den. Shin Jinbutsu Ōraisha, Tōkyō 1976.
  • Shō Busei: Okinawa no Bujutska – Arakaki-gwā to Higaonna. Ryūkyū Shimpō, January 24, 1914.
  • Shōtō (Funakoshi Gichin): Okinawa no Bugi (I). Karate ni tsuite Asato Ankō Uji Dan. Ryūkyū Shinpō, January 17, 1914.
  • Shōtō (Funakoshi Gichin): Okinawa no Bugi (II). Karate ni tsuite Asato Ankō Uji Dan. Ryūkyū Shinpō, January 18, 1914.
  • Toguchi Seikichi: Karate no Kokoro. Kadokawa Shoten, Tōkyō 1986.
  • Toguchi Yoshiaki: Karate no Rekishi, sono Shinpyōsei o kōsatsusuru. In:  JKFan, October, November, December Issue 2006; May, July Issue 2007.
  • Uechi Kan’ei et.al.: Seisetsu Okinawa Karate-dō no Rekishi. Uechi-ryū Karate-dō Kyōkai 1977.
  • Zuroku “Yoshimura Chōgi Ten”. Okinawa Kenritsu Hakubutsukan 1981.

© 2017, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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